The day started with a rather comical scene – a group of lycra clad cyclists, stood at the foot of the narrow stairwell from their rooms, waiting to get back into downstairs reception area of the hotel (which was locked). Eventually, after debating the Fire Escape as an option (and whether it was alarmed) some sounds of life were heard emanating from the bar/dining area, and a couple of loud knocks got the door unlocked, accompanied by profuse apologies for it not having been done at the usual time of 7am. Whilst stood waiting the charity group riders gave varied descriptions of their route. As it had last night, it still sounded fairly similar to mine and I wondered if our paths would cross during the day. I was going to be on the road an hour and a half ahead of them, due to the only breakfast slot the hotel could offer being rather too late. But I was sure some of the group looked strong enough to easily close that down with me riding at touring pace (or in fact any pace I could manage, given their bikes and physiques).
The laundry room in the hotel yard was already open, and as I kitted up a handful of the group riders were working on their rigs. Despite the large piles of gear being sifted through, they were struggling to find some Smidge to fend off the already hungry locals from feasting on them while they fettled. I have to confess to enjoying the irony of sharing mine to fellow riders surrounded by vans, toolboxes and spares – a bloke alone on his bike, miles from home, with the one essential item they needed. Sometimes less truly is more.
514km – 18 Aug, 07:30 – Lairg
I wasn’t really planning a stop so soon, but on turning off the main road at the end of town I spied an open garage and took the opportunity to grab a snack. The coffee came in the form of one of those cold Starbucks brews. I picked one that claimed to be strong, and it hit the spot. The biscuits I bought were tasty, but immediately became an amusing problem when it turned out I hadn’t bought 6 bars, but 6 packs, each containing a generous handful of crumbly biscuits. The 5 packs I didn’t manage to scoff there and then proved interesting to stash, and I suspected most would become home-made muesli or bird food within an hour or two of riding. Whilst stood enjoying my roadside breakfast I was convinced further of the wisdom of minor roads for today. The little dog leg of apparent “old main road” I was stood at the corner of was quiet apart from a delivery truck to the garage. Whereas the new main road just over the other side of the river was already rumbling under the weight of weekday traffic.
The conditions may have been overcast, damp and grey, but the lesser road (the B684) was a delight – gently rolling along the edge of farmland and fields to my right and a wooded hillside down to the deep brown and white crested waters of the river on my left. Any noise from the main road across the other side was completely drowned out by the far more pleasing sound of its charging torrent. Over the final few kilometres into Lairg last evening the views ahead had become much more rural and rolling, and there was a definite sense of leaving the mountains and moorland behind me as I headed back towards Inverness. I knew this was a temporary illusion, I wouldn’t actually be heading out of the Highlands for a couple of days yet. But the feeling of being in a remote and distant landscape was fading as the route gradually traced it’s line southward down the map.
I found myself back on the main road for the final 5km into Bonar Bridge (insert optional schoolboy snigger here) – and from well before the town, the unfortunately named bridge could be seen erected (sorry) over the exact spot where the River Shin reached Dornoch Firth and made it’s escape into the sea. It was an interesting point on my journey: the left branch of the road would lead me back to the A9 northward where I’d crossed the causeway at the mouth of the Firth on Saturday; the right fork, which I followed, lead back towards Tain at the southern end of the causeway. But as I crossed the bridge and climbed the short ramp up into Ardgay, another idea was playing through my mind. Against my normally lazy nature, I found myself contemplating a diversion up and over the hills – a much more direct passage, but also a significant climb. I paused by a farm gate for some kit adjustments, including jacket for the rain which now seemed to have set in. And in doing so, I also fished out my phone and attached it to the Quadlock mount on my stem to alert me of the turn (I didn’t have this route variation mapped in the eTrex).
It was a strange feeling making that turn. The fact my rig weighed double (probably near triple) what any decent road bike would weigh had become meaningless over the last 500km. There was a simple, near dead flat option where I was going. But I was heading back up into the hills just because it seemed like it might be more interesting, and I wanted to go explore. The rain pelted down, an occasional logging truck or lorry blasted by, and I was slowly steaming nicely under my rain wear – none of which mattered in the slightest. I was climbing up through layers of damp, earthy smelling woodland – ahead, under low clouds, were glimpses of green open moor, and slipping away slowly down alongside the road was an ever more stunning view of Dornoch Firth. Sucking in great draughts of air as I slogged my way up, I could not have felt more alive, or happier. The only reason for choosing this road, was the same rationale behind the whole trip – the pure joy of not knowing exactly where I was going, or why, and what would be around the next bend. In this case, around the next bend was a German cyclist coming down (or possibly he was Swiss, or Dutch). We stood on opposite sides of the road, exchanging stories of our respective tours, the wonderful scenery, and where each of us were going. His rig was positively emaciated compared to mine – to use his phrase, he was very much on a “credit card tour”, with planned stops and shorter distances. But regardless of our different approach, we were both out here, alone, literally thousands of kilometres from home. In that moment, there was a strong sense of being kindred spirits, both fuelled by the same fire which even the pouring rain couldn’t dampen.
A lovely old blue T2 kombi camper had passed me earlier on the climb, although it’s 80hp engine was struggling to get up the slope much quicker than I was riding. A little before the top I spotted it pulled over, the driver taking photos of the view. We waved as I ground past, and he pointed to the bend ahead, calling out to me that we were nearly at the top. It wasn’t totally accurate,. Around the corner, the road flattened and crossed a soggy looking high valley of marshes and moorland, flanked by pine forest on either side. At the head of this valley, the road crossed over to the other bank and immediately began the second, and final stage of its climb. Less savage than the ramps up from the side of the firth, but long and grinding through swirling banks of damp mist. It was no less scenic for the wet weather though, in fact if anything, the flat light made the greens and purples seem almost luminous against the dim grey banks of cloud. When the road finally ran downwards again, it did so with a vengeance, fast and flowing as it swept down through lush woodland. A little unexpectedly, I completely bypassed the town of Alness and found myself on the road back to Evanton in no time. Except this time, keen to find coffee and food, I skipped the meandering cycle path in favour of the faster and more direct option of staying on the road. I pulled over at the town hotel in the hope of breakfast, but they were only open to residents. A guy outside helpfully gave me directions to somewhere close by, but it was in the direction of the A9 which I had no desire to ride. My mind was battling with exactly where I had seen it, but I was sure somewhere up ahead was the lovely looking café that I had seen cyclists stopping in for coffee on my first day riding out of Inverness. It was a bit further along than I’d remembered, in fact almost into Dingwall, but eventually I spied it’s wooden clad buildings and welcoming outside marquee.
573km – 18 Aug, 11;12 – Highland Farm Café
In a rare moment of indecision (or maybe just hunger) I opted for a bacon roll & chocolate croissant, and a can of orange juice as well as coffee. The latter proved to be excellent, much as I’d expected – cyclists are a fussy bunch, so anywhere this popular was unlikely to be serving a bad brew. I chatted with a couple of guys with fine looking gravel bikes as I waited for the goodies to arrive. Both of them were on outrides from Inverness, as most of the handful of other riders at the outdoor tables seemed to be. Somewhat against the forecast, the damp start had cleared to blue skies and sunshine, and still wrapped in my wet weather gear I was beginning to overheat. It didn’t look as if the afternoon storms were going to materialize after all, so I stashed everything back in the rear bags on the bike. I was glad I had because it was warm riding back through the centre of Dingwall, and the suburbs onto the road out to Muir of Oord.
Apart from getting back on route, and being roughly on schedule too, there was little to get excited about through this section. It was not unpleasant riding, even though the roads were a tad busy at times, but compared to the vast landscape I had lost myself in over the last few days, the roads in front of me were a bit too much like getting from A to B. I began to start thinking about what was ahead rather than enjoying the immediacy of the present. I had to forcibly remind myself that this too was part of the adventure, and that at some point not many days further on, there’d be a lot more of this type of urban riding than there would be wide open countryside. Fortunately that point wasn’t here yet and, a few kilometres after Muir of Oord, the scenery shifted back to something altogether more nourishing for the soul. At first, it was just a subtle shift from sprawling light industry and bus routes, to a pleasant tree lined avenue along a sizeable river. But that too gave way to much deeper woodland as I turned right onto the A833 and the route began to climb back up into the hills again. From here it as a long steady haul up to the highest point of the ride so far – not exactly huge, at only 270m or so, but enough to get the lungs working nicely. As well as being enjoyable in its own right, this was a climb with a purpose – on the other side of the pine forested hillside, and the open moorland of the ridge at the top, lay Loch Ness. I vaguely recall catching the brief glimpses of its vast expanse as the road began its rapid, twisting descent to the lakeside town of Drumnadrochit.
Sadly, despite its beautiful name, it wasn’t a place I found myself wanting to spend any time. For the first time on the ride, I ran into full scale tourist season – coaches and throngs of people all over the place, long queues outside every shop. I checked my map and the road signs, and pushed straight on through keen to be somewhere less busy. I briefly stopped at a nice, looking inn down the road in the hope of lunch, but it was quiet for a reason. They were only open for food in the evenings. So I pushed on instead. There was a just about usable cycle path up to the entrance of the lovely Urquhart Castle. But beyond this point, the A82 really was not a nice road (something I had been warned of to be fair). For most of its run along the loch it had two lanes exactly wide enough for cars, and just barely wide enough for the many trucks and coaches – but definitely not wide enough to leave room for cyclists in that equation. Worst still, it wound around the contours of the lake meaning many of the corners were completely blind. These apparent dangers seemed lost on most of the traffic, especially the larger vehicles, who were blasting along at motorway speeds, making almost no allowance for the fact that something or someone slower might be unseen in the lane around that next bend. I did my best to make myself as visible as possible – using both rear lights, and with my lumi green rain jacket back on (it was pouring down anyway by that point, so it served both purposes). There were a couple of very short sections with something resembling a cycle lane, but overall it was an unnerving 25km in fast moving traffic. Oddly, I felt more sorry for the few cyclists I saw coming the other way. Nearly all the traffic behind me seemed to see me a long way back, and gave me decent room. It may have just been my perception, but all of the traffic coming up the lake the other way seemed to be travelling much faster and with way less care and attention. Either way, I heaved a sigh on safely reaching the end of Fort Augustus, and vowed to take any measure I could to avoid the A82 in future. I’m still a little stunned that the book The Best 100 Mile Bike Routes includes rides with both this section of road, and another section of the A82 up around Glencoe that I was now seriously doubting I wanted to take. Sure, on a quiet day, stunning rides no doubt – but on a mildly busy day like I’d just experienced, it seemed positively dicey. One error of judgement by those fast moving cars and it’d be game over.
642km – 18 Aug, 15:45 – Fort Augustus
Riding into Fort Augustus immediately put the busy main road out of my mind. The town was also full of meandering sightseers, but not to the same extent as Drumnadrochit. Bathed in bright sunshine now the clouds had cleared, it was a delightful picture postcard scene (which I guess accounted for its popularity). I crossed the canal bridge towards a row of cafes in the search for food. Surprisingly I found an open table, but when I got inside the variety of panninis on offer just didn’t whet my appetite – I was a bit fed up of sandwiches, and the yawning cavern inside me needed proper food to fill it. I wasn’t exactly optimistic as I wandered back outside but, whilst explaining my predicament to a couple of other cyclists sat outside, and exchanging small talk on rigs and routes, I spied an oddly out of place sign. Amidst the quaint surroundings, back on the other side of the canal, a garish blue and pink sign shouted out the word OPEN – a neon lit ray of hope for my rumbling stomach.
It was an interesting establishment – part café, part restaurant, but exactly what I needed. In no time at all, I was sat outside under a large awning, tucking into a massive plate of Lasagne and chips, and downing a cold beer. Better still, the last of the day’s rain clouds arrived exactly as I sat there, giving one last drenching to the countryside, sending the passers-by outside scurrying for cover as I sat in the dry filling my belly. I forget now, but it’s entirely possible I stayed for ice cream or some other pudding (now I think of it, maybe Tiramisu) whilst I waited for the showers to pass. It was time well spent too, by the time I emerged, the sunshine had returned, and the little town and scenery were glorious, bathed in the late afternoon light. It was going to be a stunning last stretch of the day, and better still it was pretty much all off road from here to Fort William.
I forget exactly which of the early route iterations it was when I noticed the Caledonian Canal cycle path but it grabbed my attention the moment I spotted it. Together with the Cape Wrath trail, it was the part of the reason for switching to a somewhat more gravel capable tyre than I’d normally have chosen for a long ride. And as much as I had anticipated it, no amount of imagination could have painted the perfect picture I rode into. A tarmac path rose up alongside the stack of locks, turning into a dusty white towpath as it reached the water level of the main canal and headed off into open country. To my left was the wide flat water of the canal, and to the right the river, largely hidden from view by a screen of trees but its murmuring waters making its presence felt. Every so often, the towpath went over a bridge across an overflow weir that linked the two. A handful of other cyclists and walkers were out enjoying the wonderful tranquillity of being surrounded by nothing but water, and trees, and much further off the towering peaks of high mountains flanking the valley. The canal itself struck me as a truly impressive feat of engineering, and I wondered if it had played any part in wartime shipping to avoid the dangerous waters and warships that lay off the coast I had ridden along to the north.
The first section of man-made canal ended after about 8km at Loch Oich, where the cyclepath swapped sides with the A82 and took a short dogleg to follow the line of the old Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway. The path ran along the base of a wooded hillside, with the loch to the right. Sheltered, and through deep woods, it was clearly a favourite spot for the midges to hide from the wind and prey on unsuspecting travellers like me. I was glad I’d already abandoned the idea of a bivvy spot along here in favour of a hotel room in Fort William, which Yoli was busy researching for me. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place for a sleep out than the path ahead of me, or a less inviting one with its swarms of vampire insects. The railway path section came to an end with a very short section of actual railway line, complete with part renovated station platform, and an actual locomotive. All of it looked rather deserted and incomplete, although it wasn’t clear whether that was just a case of COVID-interruptus, or a drying up of funds or passion for the project. The nearby campsite and water park looked fairly open still, another spot I’d contemplated as an overnight stop.
660km – 18 Aug, 18:00 – Laggan Locks
Crossing over the A82 again led to a short section of a couple of kilometres of canal before the path changed its character entirely. I knew the 45km of path from Fort Augustus to Fort William had around 300m of vertical on it, which was clearly not the sort of ascent either canals or railway lines were likely to offer. And, sure enough, as the cycle route swung right it began to climb into sweet scented pine forests on gravel logging trails that clambered along the steep banks of the rather literally (if unimaginatively) named Loch Lochy. I stopped to take a photo, but nothing could capture the utter peace – the dusty trail rising up ahead of me, pale shafts of evening light falling down through breaks in the trees, and here and there glimpses down to the lake alongside. A small, buzzard swooped silently across the path, followed soon after by a much larger one, presumably its parent. Both of them disappeared back into the dark, eerie depths of the forest, but they didn’t leave me alone. Rounding a bend, the trail ahead look suddenly very familiar – although daylight, some part of it reminded me of the wooded section of Munga above Ceres, on that long night of riding with T and his broken wheel. Much as we’d both have loved it, it was never likely that T would have joined me on this ride. But as I ground slowly up that slope I had a strong sense that he was riding alongside me, our handlebars side by side once again, sharing the magic, or just as likely berating each another. I kept my eyes fixed ahead, not wishing to break the spell by attempting to see the impossible. Instead I cranked steadily upward, enjoying a full blown conversation about the wonders of this ride with my much missed riding buddy. I’m pretty sure anyone else on the trail would have wondered if this mal Engelsman (mad Englishman) talking to himself, with tears streaming down his cheeks was quite right in the head. T would no doubt have helpfully explained to them that neither of us were.
The logging track came to a car park at its upper end, where a handful of people were kitting up for runs or dog walks in the woods. From there it followed a few short sections of small lanes around the side of the loch, some of them very beautiful but blighted by the ever present midges unfortunately. At one point I caught a glimpse of a sign marking some site of world war two significance (apparently a commando training facility at Bunakraig). The final stretch of canal path into Fort William was a long one, becoming busier with boats, walkers and other riders as I got closer to the town. One resilient chap emerged from a tent beside the towpath in what I assume was the best impression he could conjure up of a full hazmat suit from his limited bikepacking wardrobe. I commented to him that he was braver than I as we passed, to which he replied something along the lines of maybe just more foolish. Either way, it was a good effort, and not one I had any desire to imitate. I was keen to get away from the perilous waterside and into the comfort and safety of my hotel room. Just before the town itself, I crossed a still active railway line and then, after a clearly popular and very busy cycle bridge across the river, ran alongside the marshalling yards of the line itself. Except these were filled with vintage Pullman coaches and the unmistakable whooshes and the smells of a coal fired steam engine. It all became clear a few hundred meters further along. One of the passengers getting off the train that had just pulled into Fort William station explained to me that a Harry Potter themed steam excursion had been operating, taking fans of the stories along the massive curved viaduct featured in movie scenes of the Hogwarts Express. As if the evening could not have got more perfect for them, a massive double rainbow arced through the sky back down the valley – maybe even conjured up by the famous wizard himself.
695km – 18 Aug, 20:05 – Fort William
Yoli commented that my path to the hotel was making her and Ben seasick. It took me a few U turns to find my way under the road, and through the pedestrianised area of the town to the accommodation. At cycling speed, Google maps had developed a vindictive tendency to warn me about a turn 15 seconds after already passing it. The lady at reception was friendly, but not all that keen to let me store my bike inside. It’s not an unusual policy, but with no safe outside storage on offer, we agreed she’d step away from the glass pod for long enough to not see me wheel it through into the stairwell beyond. Honestly, the accommodation was perfectly adequate for my needs, but it wasn’t exactly the sort of establishment where they need to worry that my bike posed a significant threat to the decor. It was essentially, a glorified back packers, bearing all the dinks, scuffs, and stains from too many years of visiting students, hikers, climbers and stag parties. There was absolutely nothing wrong with my room – clean, and functional, but the popularity of Fort William as a destination was evident in the fairly high price for something basic and not many occupants away from reaching a state that could be called shabby. I had no complaints though – it had it’s own type of room service, in the form of a kettle that facilitated a surprisingly tasty freeze dried spicy chicken noodle dinner, followed by a desert of complimentary hot chocolate. All of which could be enjoyed with zero risk of insect bites even without a stitch of clothing on after my shower (I did close the curtains first).
The time before, during, and after my magnificent evening repast was spent surfing the internet for articles to ease my concerns over the A82 south of here to Glasgow being a safe cycling options. The climb up to Glencoe sounded promising, and mostly on cycle path. But even the most optimistic views of the road beyond weren’t reassuring – OK as long as you were in a group and had a safety vehicle to shield you from fast moving traffic through numerous blind bends. Aside from riding in the dead of night, or being lucky to find the road empty, the rest seemed to offer predictions of iminent death to those riding solo. I’m exaggerating here, but after my earlier Loch Ness experience, I had no appetite for more of the same. There was a ferry across the loch in town, which avoided the dreaded road completely – but it made little sense, since the earliest crossing was 10:30am, and would mean another ferry to get back further on. The safest realistic option seemed to be to get out early to cover the 10km south out of town in light traffic, and then turn off after the bridge at North Ballachulish onto a “Plan B” stretch I had already sketched out as a backup option for this part of the journey. I wasn’t thrilled about the added distance or climbing, both of which increased the challenge of meeting friends in Glasgow for dinner and a beer the next evening. It was a necessary and unavoidable precaution though, and I drifted off to sleep intent on enjoying whatever extra scenery and delights tomorrow’s not entirely unexpected diversion had to offer.
The back packers experience had one more treat to make it fully authentic. A rather pleasing procession of weird and colourful dreams was cut short by a drunken bunch of party animals clattering loudly down the corridor in the small hours of the morning. I went back to sleep comforted in the knowledge that in not many more hours of the same morning, I would be returning the favour. The sound of my Hope Pro4 rear hub would amplify nicely along the echoing halls – the perfect wakeup call on a head splitting hangover.
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‘T would no doubt have helpfully explained to them that neither of us were.’ – I had to read that more than once.